Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

50. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was recommended to me back in high school and I never got around to it. When I finally did, I thought it might have been too late. Then, I started reading.

Charlie is truly an unforgettable character. His view of the world is heartbreakingly open and thoughtful, curious as a baby and much more articulate. But the atmosphere that he evokes, of one small group, one facet within a high school builds an incredibly intoxicating, and, for me, nostalgic atmosphere. His friends are quirky and interesting, they're real people. And Chbosky seems to know that even when things get complicated, in spite or because of all the intense fear and sorrow that teenagers are capable of feeling, things can still feel like magic, or in Charlie's words "infinite."

I don't think I can write a very unbiased review of this book. To me, it felt poetic, lyrical, pitch-perfect. I suspect those who are fans of '90s indie bands would appreciate the references much more and I do like the distinctly '90s feel, because that's when I grew up too. But I have a feeling it's a book that will transcend the decades.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Neverwhere

49. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I've been meaning to read Gaiman for several years now, and I finally did. This was the first Gaiman book that was ever recommended to me, and I borrowed it recently from a friend.

Neverwhere is the under London odyssey of a bumbling British straightman known as Richard Mayhew. He is told to beware of "doors," which take their form as a girl named Door from the underworld, whose family has the power to open anything, and for that are slaughtered, leaving her as the only survivor. She is dogged by malicious henchmen from the underworld known as Croup and Vandemar, and seeks protection from the roguish Marquis de Carabas and legendary bodyguard Hunter. Richard is pulled into her world and must leave his ordinary life behind to help her complete her mission to avenge her family and achieve his own desire to return to normalcy.

Gaiman's writing is undoubtedly the best part of the book, he has a wit and penchant for the absurd that for me was deeply reminiscent of Douglas Adams. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the floating Market, that re-appears in a different location at appointed times. I suspect the book would also be a lot more entertaining for Londoners, as it creates an entire society that takes place in the Underground system and underneath London. One joke I did get (since it is practically forced down your throat, but..) is that the most frightening part of London under is beneath Kensington, a posh neighborhood in London above.

Probably intentionally, Neverwhere is a very simple quest story, with little attempt to disguise or embellish the classical narrative. We have our Trickster(s), our Animus, Anima, and our underdog hero. In some ways, Door might be considered the hero of the story, but Richard is undoubtedly our protagonist. All in all, Neverwhere would make a fantastic children's story, were it not for a few unfortunate references to adult activities. I'd recommend it to the YA set, but not to readers who prefer more complex material.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Books I'd Like for Hanukkah

I had to modify this week's topic for the Broke and the Bookish Top Ten Tuesday meme a bit.

Lately, I'm an inferno of book lust, despite a lot less time for actual reading, since I'm working 2-3 jobs/internships, plus grad applications, which are thankfully almost over. I did finish Neverwhere and The Perks of Being a Wallflower recently, which had both been on my to-read list for many years, and am more than halfway through The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I hope to get reviews up at some point, but we'll see.

1. Divergent by Veronica Roth

Sounds like a great dystopia novel with a kick-ass female protagonist.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Heard such great things and I am a fan of beautiful, magical writing.

3. The School of Night by Louis Bayard

Heard him speak at the National Book Festival and am totally hooked by a tale of sixteenth century rogues and DC academics.

4. Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

I loved Wicked, heard Maguire read a passage from Out of Oz, I want it.

5. The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Loved The Name of the Wind, need more awesome fantasy in my life.

6. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Again, need more awesome fantasy in my life.

7. The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Time travel, sci fi, and H.G. Wells, I'm intrigued.

8. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

I hear great things and I know it's time I learned more about Catherine.

9. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

I heard her speak and was totally overcome by her passion for her subject. This has to be good.

10. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Heard about this one from Books on the Nightstand, plus a friend with similar taste loved it, so I expect I will too.

I could go on...

Monday, December 5, 2011

And So It Goes

48. And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

I had the opportunity to meet Charles J. Shields and his wife Guadalupe at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. The only authorized biographer of Vonnegut was a wonderful speaker, I wished I'd had him to speak the rest of the book to me, for as thorough and direct as his prose is, plus a prodigious knack for hitting all the most interesting details, his speaking was even more entertaining. In the Introduction, he writes of his first attempt to convince Vonnegut that he was a worthy biographer. His initial plea produced a mailed self-portrait from Vonnegut, with the caption “A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer.” In person, Shields recalled that it was his wife who "fastened on the word 'demurring'" and convinced him to try again, which he did with success. That little tidbit was left out of the book, as were the details of Shields' personal interviews with Vonnegut, which he described for the audience. However, I really have to admire Shields for keeping himself out of the book to the extent that he does. When reading, it really does feel like you're in the mind of Vonnegut and his friends and family, NOT Shields, just as a biography should be.

The character that emerges from Shields’ portrait is of a petulant, embittered, and attention-seeking man, who felt that his parents and brother misunderstood him, that publishers, editors, and critics undervalued him, and that even his first wife Jane, mother of their three children, never really loved him. Yet, Vonnegut could be remarkably kind, charming, and thoughtful. While teaching in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, he noticed that the anonymous critiquing sessions that welcomed students from all classes had become a platform for bullies. He suggested that “sections should meet separately…with an instructor to guide the discussion,” that submissions no longer be anonymous, and overly subjective criticism be banned. All of these changes were implemented. Later in his career, after he became famous, a young writer disguised himself as a reporter in order to meet with him. Vonnegut called the young man’s bluff, but met with him anyway and encouraged him to write the article he had claimed to be commissioned for.

The Vonnegut estate would not allow Shields to quote directly from the 1,500 letters that he acquired over the course of his research. When asked at the event, Shields said he thinks they do not want the image of Vonnegut, as the crotchety, Mark Twain-like figure, to change. He concludes in the book that Vonnegut’s decision to adopt the Twain brand was a very deliberate affectation. Although Vonnegut is often associated with the Left due to his anti-war ethos, Shields argues that he was in fact a reactionary and an active capitalist. Vonnegut’s numerous stocks and investments in large corporations support this claim. The content of the letters, however, is pervasive throughout the biography. Two hundred were to Vonnegut’s sometime friend, editor, and agent, Knox Burger, to whom the biography is dedicated. Vonnegut wrote to Burger about his difficulties getting published in the early years, later about the failure to take his works seriously, being “cooped up with all these kids,” and also, about his affairs.

The first serious affair, which began a relationship that would last in some capacity for the rest of his life, was Lora Lee Wilson, a student in one of his creative writing classes at Iowa. Despite his lifelong love of women, Shields shows that Vonnegut held some very traditional ideas about women’s roles, which affected his relationship with Jane, his wife of thirty-four years. While Vonnegut wrote, Jane ran the household and raised the children, including his nephews. Shields writes, “He expected Jane to be a traditional wife who would blend her identity with his.” When they fought, his reaction was to run off and sometimes to chase after other women. Even after their divorce, they remained friends and he continued to write long letters to her. Occasionally, he would write a letter to Jane and then immediately after to a girlfriend. His second wife, Jill, whom Shields was not able to interview, appears in the book as a difficult, demanding woman who wanted to control whom Vonnegut was allowed to socialize with. Their marriage was also fraught with tension and included a few periods of separation.

In addition to the most private details of Vonnegut’s life, Shields also places his oeuvre in a biographical context. Shields notes that unsatisfactory sex is a pattern in Vonnegut’s earlier works, from Player Piano to Cat’s Cradle. “His affair with Loree [Lora Lee Wilson],” Shields writes, “would change the way he wrote about relationships in his novels.” She is the model for Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse-Five with whom Billy Pilgrim has a mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

Shields’ rendering of Vonnegut’s life, while not flattering, still manages to be respectful and interested in how Vonnegut captured the imagination of a generation, and continues to capture young minds; “if he had been a fully mature adult, it’s likely he would not have been able to frame young adults’ worldview so well.” From Vonnegut’s own assessments of his self, it’s likely that he would have agreed.